Touched by Fire

Louise Barnett, Author
Louise Barnett, Author Henry Holt & Company $30 (8p) ISBN 978-0-8050-3720-3
Reviewed on: 06/03/1996
Release date: 06/01/1996
Paperback - 560 pages - 978-0-8050-5359-3
Paperback - 540 pages - 978-0-8032-6266-9
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When historic personages pass into legend, they lend themselves to reinterpretation by each subsequent generation. So it is with George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876), who here comes into the rigorous purview of Rutgers English professor Barnett (The Ignoble Savage) as she applies the structures of class, race and gender to depict an erratic, complex man who never adjusted to the end of his triumphs in leading patriotic volunteers in the Civil War. Barnett finds that Custer despised the men of his Seventh Cavalry, who fell with him at Little Bighorn, as mercenaries and societal dregs; that he embraced his country's racist policies toward the Plains Indians; that he owed any emotional stability he possessed to a co-dependent relationship with his wife, Libbie. But Barnett is no mere debunker. Her analysis of the Custers' marriage and the workings of the frontier army is solid. Her common-sense approach to the Little Bighorn cuts like Occam's razor through pages of elaborate reconstructions. She wisely attributes Custer's defeat not to esoterica such as disloyal officers and jammed carbines but to poor planning and reconnaissance in the face of the largest gathering ever of Plains Indians. While Robert Utley's Cavalier in Buckskin remains the richest Custer biography, Barnett makes a solid contribution to our understanding of the man and the myth. Photos not seen by PW. Rights, except first serial, electronic, audio: Gerard McCauley. (June)
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